THE ANTHROPOCENE SLAM: A CABINET OF CURIOSITIES NOVEMBER 8-10

WISCONSIN INSTITUTES FOR DISCOVERY DELUCA FORUM MADISON

INSECTICIDE PUMP SPRAY

drawing of a 60-month-old girl and a much smaller 71-month-old boy

Since World War II humans have released over 80,000 chemical compounds that no organism had previously encountered in the 3.5 billion year history of life on earth. Only a fraction of these have been tested or brought under regulatory regimes. It is a profound change, one that can’t be undone easily and not within our lifetimes. It will persist in the geological record and in our genetic legacy.

Earlier this year, researchers publishing in The Lancet Neurology announced we are in the midst of a 'global, silent pandemic of neurodevelopmental toxicity'. We live in a chemical soup the effects of which are difficult to determine because it is pervasive. On the other hand we know the concentrated sites of toxicity in our globally polluted environment disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable.

An Anthropocene Cabinet of Curiosities would not be complete without a household insecticide pump spray (with 30% extra DDT!). This object, and its use in homes, food growing, and public health, marks the beginning of the great escape of human-made chemicals, the civic use of industrial chemistry, and the normalisation of global toxification. The children’s drawings complement the pump spray. In the late 1990s anthropologist Elizabeth Guillette asked children from the Yaqui Valley in Mexico to draw simple pictures - one group was from the agricultural lowlands, the other from the pesticide-free highlands. The difference in the drawings is a striking visualisation of what is largely an invisible agent of harm. It is also an illustration of the geographic inequality of toxic burdens. The pump spray and pictures: the source and consequence.

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